He does flicks and tricks, tackles and scores: West Ham’s Dimitri Payet ‘does everything’
“We’ve got Payet, Dimitri Payet! I just don’t think you understand. He’s Super Slav man; he’s better than Zidane. We’ve got Dimitri Payet!”
The song, sung to the tune of Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky Heart, was on constant repeat as nine thousand West Ham United fans travelled 200 miles from East London to Old Trafford on Sunday. They were singing it at Manchester Piccadilly train station and on Sir Matt Busby Way. They were singing about their 28-year-old French forward, Dimitri Payet.
As they closed in on the stadium forecourt, a line of mounted police horses helped usher them towards the turnstiles. One horse had the privilege of being serenaded by West Ham fans with their Payet song, a tune which continued inside the stadium.
Payet, from the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion, only signed from Marseille for £10 million (Dh52.6m) in the summer, but he has already been a revelation and had his contract renewed and improved.
He would provide the outstanding moment of skill in the FA Cup sixth-round tie, a free kick described by his manager Slaven Bilic as “pure class of magic – the perfect goal”.
David de Gea is seldom beaten from distance and Payet’s 68th minute free kick was taken from 28 yards out. He hit it high over the Manchester United wall before it swerved and dipped into the Spaniard’s goal after clipping the post. That it was scored in front of the travelling fans was a bonus, because those fans love him.
“At West Ham over the years we’ve had Paolo di Canio, Joe Cole, Eyal Berkovic, and he’s now in that class,” said Gary Firmager, the editor of the West Ham fanzine Over Land and Sea, which he sold on Sir Matt Busby Way before the game.
“We’ve had great players like Trevor Brooking, but these are different players, they’re technically so gifted. Payet has a different mentality to Di Canio, who was a fruit bat. He might sit down on the half way line because he didn’t want to play the game any more. Payet will keep going all day long.
“He does everything: He goes past players, he does flicks and tricks. He passes long range and short range. He tackles, he scores goals, he scores from free kicks.”
Payet is English football’s form player, with five goals in his last four away games. He is athletic, stocky, fast and powerful with quick feet, but he courts controversy.
He would provide the game’s most controversial moment, in the 64th minute, when he went to ground after a tackle from Marcos Rojo in the United area. He hollered for a penalty, as did the away fans in front of him, and his coach Bilic, but referee Martin Atkinson allowed play to continue. Payet had been booked for a tackle on Jesse Lingaard minutes earlier.
“Payet was, more or less, diving,” said Louis van Gaal. “Of course, he was maybe touched but not to fall like that. There is always discussion about the decisions of the referee.
“You can also say that about the game against Liverpool” on Thursday. “I cannot say anything. The referee has to decide within seconds. I said that after the game against Liverpool and now it’s the same.”
Bilic thought otherwise.
“Come on,” said the Croatian. “If you have a screen show me, I am going to defend my point at Cambridge” presumably a reference to that university’s union debating society. “There is more than a contact. I’m not saying it was nasty, it is definitely not a dive.
“Every decision in the box, it doesn’t have to be penalty or dive,” added Bilic, who had touted Payet as a contender for England’s footballer of the year.
“Nobody in the world can say there wasn’t a touch. Then if it was a touch, and it is more than a touch, it is a penalty. Rojo slides and when you are sliding in the box and the ball is nowhere near you, you are taking a big gamble and a big risk. It is a penalty.”
The debate will continue until the replay at Upton Park, for which a date has yet to be arranged.
Payet was a threat, but not a constant one. He does not dominate games, but changes them. Wearing No 27, he played on the left of a 4-3-3, a shift from the start of the season when he played as a No 10.
He combines well with Aaron Cresswell on the left, though he can be found all over the field, even coming back to take the ball from defence.
He would need more positional discipline if he were to play for the biggest clubs. On 36 minutes he drifted to the right of the pitch and left Cresswell exposed on the left.
A minute later Payet ran back to help his defence out and won the ball back, but it would be his second-half strike which gave West Ham hope. He may have joined Di Canio and Carlos Tevez, the last two West Ham players to score a winner at Old Trafford, and the visiting fans shouted “Wembley!”, but their dreams faded and died with Anthony Martial’s late equaliser.
West Ham are still in the FA Cup, with the Payet song the soundtrack of their excellent season, just as it was at Blackburn Rovers in the fifth round, when he scored another free kick in front of another huge away following.
He was the last man off the field at Old Trafford, saluting the adoring away fans as they sang his name.
Payet had not played in the Premier League game at Old Trafford in December, and so Sunday was the first time Manchester United fans had seen him in the flesh.
After watching him they now have to agree with West Ham fans and admit, reluctantly, that he is special.
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Updated: March 14, 2016 04:00 AM